Monday, July 6, 2015

The Brothers Wright

Tried and true authors are treasures. Always have been. The Hardy Boys never disappointed! Even though Franklin W. Dixon was a myth. No need for character growth or change! Always 16 and 18, always Frank steady and Joe excitable and more prone to mistakes, the same girl friends who never got pregnant. That would certainly have been something. The books were formulaic, so why not in chapter 8 Carrie generally says, “Frank, I hate to tell you this, but I'm late on my period again.”

“Jesus, Callie, again? What is it with you?”

“With me? Frank, you were the one who said you'd pull out.”

“I thought I did.”

“Well, you didn't, not in time.”

And then they go to old Doc McCubbins on the other side of the lake for another fix, but on the way, as Frank is driving his detective father Fenton Hardy's car he notices an old Dodge that seems strangely like the one the old lady described as driving away from the crime scene....

“Carrie, that abortion's going to have to wait! Hold on, here we go after the culprit!”

“Oh, Frank, be careful! This time, anyway.”

Well, this isn't much of an introduction for the latest David McCullough book, The Wright Brothers, although it isn't that far off, either, even though the Hardy Boys just came to me as I thought, I need an introduction to this short essay, and there they were, although I also toyed with Cat in the Hat and Dr. Suess, and now I'm thinking of Christopher Robin. There's a difference between a formula and consistent voice. McCullough, along with Suess and A. A. Milne, has a consistent voice, not a formula. I like his reliability; I always know I'm going to like the book, and it's always worth reading.

I really had known very little about the Wright brothers. I kind of thought of them like the Smith Brothers on the front of cough drop packages. But it turns out they didn't have beards. Wilbur was clean shaven and Orville, three years younger, sported a mustache. And it turns out there was a third Wright who didn't help with the project directly, but who was a wonderful support and the third member of a family triumvirate (bad word to use, since vir means man, but there it is), their extroverted and to me wonderful little sister Katherine, three years younger than Orville, the only college graduate – Oberlin – and so much an emotional center. When they had solved the puzzle of flying and went to Europe and Washington and New York to show what they could do, she went along, too. And when Orville hurt himself badly in an accident at Fort Myer in Washington – I used to go to the PX there when I was in the US Public Health Service – she immediately went there and nursed him constantly in the hospital, then took him back to Dayton where he got better, especially since he was home. That's the way it was then, medicine wasn't much. As a matter of fact, later on, Wilbur died from typhoid fever and Katharine died of pneumonia, neither of which is fatal now. That was then, when man had just learned to fly but couldn't yet cure.

It's a great story and McCullough is just as he always is, clear, insightful, succinct, intelligent, subtle, yet not hesitant in bringing the message home. Memorable, always memorable; you never have to think, now, what was that about? And here's the thing – they could have been the Hardy Boys! My unconscious strikes again. They have such upright characters! Not stuffy, but so, so steady, so much informed by their religious father who was a bishop of his church. They had two older brothers who had gotten married and moved away, and their mother died in 1889 (f tuberculosis, now curable, of course) before they had gotten started on their aeroplane project. So the three younger children were a troika – can't get away from them foreign words – with their father coming and going on his church missions, all living in the same house, 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton. Although now perhaps best known as the home of the Dayton Flyers (in my density I didn't realize where the name came from until now), then it was an up and coming town with their pride and joy, before the brothers Wright, being National Cash Register. The high school they built, Steele High, looked like an elaborate college building with spires, such were their aspirations. I don't get the sense of any Babbitry. Dayton was an up and coming city in an up and coming country in an up and coming time, when growth was constant and insistent but, as Thomas Piketty reminds us, incomes and wealth were distributed very unequally.

To them, however, wealth didn't matter; to get rich was not their inspiration. When they had succeeded and came to mix with the rich and the famous, it didn't intimidate them at all, and as a matter of fact, they got on rather well with the European aristocracy. Being self-confident and having a secure feeling of self-worth led them not to change a thing about who they were or how they acted and where they ended up eventually, which was right back in Dayton, which was good enough for them. What they wanted was to solve the problem of human flight.

I read in Walter Isaacson's Einstein biography that what stayed with Einstein was a childhood book about riding on a light wave – what would that be like, the childhood book asked and Einstein wondered? Not so many years later, the theory of relativity gave an answer. What stayed with the Wrights was a French childhood toy their father brought them, a little toy helicopter that actually flew. When I read that, I thought, My God, I had no idea there had been such a toy before actual manned flight! Yes, what they did is still totally amazing, for sure, but then again, there was this toy that flew. How encouraging did that have to be? I mean, you had to know that flying was possible, somehow, it was just a question of figuring it out, hard as it may have been.

And it was very hard; it took genius. You would think that one of the things that was hard about it would be raising the money for it. But in those days, if you were the Wrights, you just did it without much money. They put in tremendous amounts of time, and had some help from Charlie Taylor, a mechanic they recruited to work with their bicycles and then with the flyers, and others who rallied to the idea. But for materials, McCullough estimates that they spent maybe $1,000 until they flew, including train fare from Dayton to Kitty Hawk and back several times. It didn't cost much to live if you built you own sheds and camps and you didn't eat anything expensive, or maybe much at all. They were all very thin. When they finally took passengers with them flying, it was chancy with one of them because he was very heavy, weighing … 175 pounds. Nowadays, I guess we're pretty fat, most of us.

So, to get back to the beginning, Wilbur and Orville and little sister Katharine and their father all lived in the same house, and apparently none of them had girlfriends or boyfriends. McCullough doesn't comment on this. But you have to think about it, don't you? I mean, it's good to be a close family … but then, actually, as you read the story, they wouldn't have been able to do what they did if they had others in the picture. McCullough even says that they saw the jobs the two older brothers, Reuchlin and Lorin, needed to get to support their families and how they struggled, and Wilbur and Orville just seemed to think it wasn't worth it. So what were their alternatives, then, since they were solid, Midwestern, god fearing folk? I imagine their hard work – many comment that “they were the workingest boys I ever saw” – and furtive masturbation were the only answers. Sublimation works. I wonder what they did when they didn't have their own rooms, and lived in the tents at Kitty Hawk? Franklin W. Dixon doesn't tell us about that with Frank and Joe, either. I didn't wonder about that when I read the Hardy Boys, but now I do wonder about Wilbur and Orville, and I guess about Katharine, too. Years later, after Wilbur died at 47 of typhoid fever, at 55 Katharine announced she was getting married and Orville was primevally angry and didn't speak to her again until she was on her death bed. What was going on? But it's not a speculative book, and not a psychological exploratory book, so who knows. Maybe he had been deserted by Wilbur when he died, and now he was being deserted by the other troika member – but truthfully, I have to think it was more than that. It was more than Orville just “having one of his spells,” as they put it, when Orville got morose. Something was going on.

Anyway, it's clear that Wilbur was a genius of the first order. He could do everything, and I guess Orville wasn't far behind. They figured out the physics of it by watching birds and reading theory, and they could just make anything; they made their own tools when they needed to. Then they worked and they worked and they thought and they worked and they got it done. And then, just as when Roger Bannister broke the dam with the four minute mile, everyone and his brother in France started flying. Most of it was probably that they saw how it was done, and they copied more or less. The Wrights themselves trained three in France to fly. But some of it had also to be that they saw that it could be done, so they became bolder and more optimistic. It's amazing how our brains work. I think the four minute mile was more psychological, but flying had some of it, too.

There was something about Wilbur Wright that led people to know he was the real item just by talking to him. He knew what he was talking about, he had figured it out, and even when it wasn't quite done, people knew that he was the Real McCoy. He was the one.

I hadn't known that. I hadn't known anything like that at all. I just thought he was one of those guys with beards who sold cough drops. Silly me.

Budd Shenkin

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